As taco lovers came by their favorite neighborhood, they were caught off guard by a sign in the window that thanked them for their patronage, but due to an increase of rent to their lease, they had to shut their doors. But there was a glimmer of hope in the message—they would try to move next door to the location of the old Subway, a smaller, and more likely affordable space. Interestingly, though, the sign was gone by the following day, Tuesday.
Unfortunately, El Faro Taqueria owner Hugo Oliviertos did not return calls as of press time to discuss his established Pocket area business, but it is known that El Faro has deep roots in San Francisco with more than 50 years in business with three locations (435 El Camino Real, 346 Kearny St., 1634 Haight St.) and has been owned by the self-proclaimed creator of the original “Super Burrito”, a traditional burrito with added rice, sour cream and guacamole.
Casey Deeha, a writer for Bay Area Review of Burritos, wrote about Hugo’s ruminations serving Carlos Santana “Super Burritos” in the 1960s in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“Let’s paint the picture,” Deeha writes. “We’re in the Mission; it’s 1961 and the cultural and social renaissance is taking place. Carlos Santana, once a resident of the Mission, has just released a live album and the 68ers have set the backdrop for the ’summer of love’ to pave the way as a future lucrative marketing campaign. Political and cultural dissent is rife in the air and Carlos Santana sits down at a table at El Faro to order what will soon become known to the world as The Super Burrito.
“‘I remember when Carlos Santana used to come in and have a burrito,’ says Hugo; ‘he was like everyone in those days, he had his specific burrito.’ Indeed, at El Faro, since 1961, patrons were choosing among a range of fresh Californian ingredients to create what has now become known as the ‘Mission Style Burrito’. ‘It was a crazy time,’ says Hugo, ‘everyone was coming in and out—there were a lot of people.’”
Fast forward more than 30 years and a change of setting – the Promenade Shopping Center, which touts itself as the one-stop shopping destination in the Pocket, but has 17 businesses that are closed and 19 (which are mostly chains) that are open, including: UPS Store, Hollywood Nails, Tobacco City, GNC, CVS, Rise Yoga, Papa Murphy’s, H&R Block, Eyelusions Optometry, Bel Air, Brite Cleaners, Golden 1, Ocean Sushi, California Sun, Goodwill Donation Express, Curves, Tuesday Morning, Dentist Arthur Burbridge, Fine Wine and Liquor, and Regent Cuisine of China – it’s a much different landscape, yet Hugo brought with him his love of the San Francisco Giants, the 49ers and a tribute to Santana. The brightly colored walls inside the restaurant were highlighted by photographs and posters of times passed.
Clearly, the restaurant leaves a gaping hole within the community.
Neighbor Kent Danielson stopped by El Faro on Tuesday night to check out the scene and discussed with this publication his relationship with the restaurant and his disappointment with the closure of the current location. “Yeah, God, I really like Hugo. I am sad. I just called the number and it said, ‘no longer in service.’ and, I went, ‘what?’ So I just came over.”
Danielson said he had been coming ever since they opened to enjoy the food there. “The food was really good. I am not a big Mexican food person, but my wife is and she really liked it. For Mexican food, it’s really good.”
He said his wife has enjoyed the Mission Street burritos, mojado style, and he would order a Pocket chicken burrito.
Over time, Danielson said as he got to know Hugo over the years. “They have been struggling when the recession hit, like everybody. Business had not been booming, but he seemed to be squeaking by,” he said.
A heating and air conditioning repair technician, Danielson said he would exchange his services for tacos as a result of learning that tenants of the Promenade have to place their own heaters and air conditioners, which he expressed his disapproval of. “I don’t think is right; it’s not going to be yours, it’s going to be the guys that own the shopping center for you to have to replace it. I really like Hugo and I got to know him a little bit and I am sad this happened. I know (the Promenade owners) threatened to raise (El Faro’s) lease. I just think they are greedy and have been asking too much. It’s not booming.”
Neighbors and shopping center tenants have discussed with this publication their disregard for the Promenade Shopping Center owners and the sad state of affairs of losing El Faro (at least temporarily) due to the increase of the rent.
Owned in a trust set up by Millbrae-based Silvestri Foust and Olga, the location of the corporate office, which runs the Promenade, is 1120 Murchinson Dr., Millbrae, and appears as if the business operates inside of a McMansion.
Locals recall a Buckhorn’s, which was in the shopping center for many years as a meeting place for sandwiches and coffee, Mountain Mike’s, the Dollar Store, Ginza Sushi, which location has been occupied by Ocean Sushi more recently, Blockbuster Video, Nathan Michael’s Hair (which moved to Elk Grove), a pet hospital, and a cupcake and yogurt shop.
Especially since she started working at Goodwill Donation Express, one of the businesses in the Promenade Shopping Center, Jon-ai Rice, said she has enjoyed eating at El Faro. “Since I started working here (about a month ago), I went there like every day and then before that, the company I worked for, we’d go there for lunch. I knew the owner, he was really cool. The food was always good,” she said.
“I went over there the other day to get some breakfast and their breakfast burritos are amazing. I went over there and opened the door and saw the sign they were closing and I was super bummed out. It was lame, so hopefully they can open back up,” she said. With the taqueria gone, affordable lunch options are limited, so Rice just goes over to Bel Air to get a sandwich. “There’s nothing here (in this shopping center),” she said.
Fine Wine and Liquor owner Chhan Lu said the rent at the shopping center is really expensive and that despite the economy, the property owner ups the rent each year. “They don’t negotiate; it keeps going up,” he said. Asked why he has stayed there for the past 10 years, Lu said moving is expensive due to the tailor made, built-in cooler.
In regards to what he knows about the property owner, he said: “They own a lot of shopping centers; so if they close one down, they don’t care.”
In a posting to the social networking website, NextDoor.com, Joe Conrad from the Pocket area, said he had he been aware of the high rent in the Promenade Shopping Center. He wrote: “I think it’s disgusting that the landlord would prefer empty shops to a thriving local business and economy!! Well, today it went too far. El Faro has closed its doors! Although I’m a fan of other businesses in the center, the only way I know to stick it to the guy who collects the rent in those shops, is to stop giving my money to those shops!! I lived here for nearly three years, and have been in there nearly once a week for each of those years! Hugo is an amazing shop owner, and a great guy! And he doesn’t deserve to be muscled out! I would love some ideas of how to start a revolution and get him back in there!”
In an email interview with this publication, Conrad described that nearly three years ago his wife, son, and he moved in to the Pocket neighborhood from Colorado Springs with the plan of opening Ravenous Cafe with his father-in-law, Wade Sawaya.
He writes: “I was the chef of the small cafe for a few months, but left shortly after to spend more time with my family, and discover a new love in numbers and money. I now work for a small environmental consulting firm as their finance director. It was my during first week with my current employer, Montgomery & Associates, Inc. that I met Hugo and the Pocket Special burrito at El Faro.”
Montgomery & Associates, Inc. is located on the corner of Greenhaven and Windbridge, making El Faro as convenient of a lunch spot for Conrad as they come.
“It was always our go-to spot! Once a week, at the very least, I enjoyed the Pocket Special Burrito that measured just about the size of my forearm. The steak was always cooked to perfection, the guacamole was everything I wanted it to be, and more! It was really an awesome burrito! So awesome in fact that it became the favorite of all of our out-of-town guests,” Conrad said, adding that his sisters could not come from Maryland without first having a Pocket special before their return and that his wife’s sisters would demand El Faro each night for dinner while they were in town from Colorado Springs.
“El Faro had become a part of our life, our routine! Trips to El Faro for visitors were essential, akin to Hollywood for first time Los Angeles visitors, or the Empire State Building for New York tourists. It wasn’t all about that burrito though. It was just as much about the guy behind the counter. I always enjoyed my conversations with Hugo,” Conrad said.
“We talked about the restaurant business. We talked about food cost, and rent. We talked about suppliers, and demanders! I feel we were able to connect on many levels because of my restaurant experience. Coming from someone who was in the business, Hugo is the type of restaurant owner that many should aspire to be. He was the face of El Faro. He was always behind the counter, always busy, but always making my El Faro experience personal. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized just how special he was. I thought that maybe I was alone, or part of a small crowd, in my admiration of this jolly restaurateur. Recently I realized that that couldn’t have been further from the truth! I was sitting at the coffee bar at Nugget signing a Valentine’s Day card for my wife. Hugo came in to get a coffee of his own before he headed off to his domain for the rest of the day. It wasn’t just me that shared this connection with Hugo. It was the whole neighborhood! Every single shopper at Nugget that walked past him that day greeted him by name! and he returned their greetings with their first name. It was incredible to see who I thought was just a small business owner, was actually a local home town hero!”